Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Photo: Aubrie Pick]
State Bird Provisions is the year-old, critically-acclaimed Fillmore District restaurant from married chefs Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski. Although its menu is about as "out there" as Northern Californian cuisine gets, the restaurant's vibrant, convivial atmosphere and flexible price points have made a wide range of diners feel right at home from day one. Entering year two now, the duo are gearing up for their second project, The Progress. Eater recently had a chat with Brioza and Krasinski about year one at State Bird, and what's up in the year ahead.
You've had an off-the-charts first year in business. Let's go back to the first month. How was it?
Stuart Brioza, Chef and Co-Owner: We really hadn't worked out many of the finer points. We went through five or six revisions of the menu, just to find that right place. You know we started off with just no menu at all, then we put an entire menu in place, and that was too much.
Nicole Krasinski, Pastry Chef and Co-Owner: Also looking back now at the physical space, how it was, and what it's become. I think it's an amazing evolution. I was reflecting on that right after the Bon Appetit article came on, thinking about what contributed to that, and you know the food, and the service, and ambiance. What's been really cool is because the space has evolved gradually, there's something really fresh, and exciting about the energy in the room. You know usually an architect has an idea a year or more out and then is in, and out, and it's finished. Ours was just a shell at the beginning and has gradually built to what it is now. People can feel that.
You also had customers give feedback and ideas about the décor, right? How did that play in.? SB: I think a lot of people came in and volunteered ideas. [Laughing.] A good friend of ours Leah Rosenberg, came in and just looked at the wall and said, I want to do something on that wall. She made a brilliant proposal, and we went for it. That first month we had just opened the doors, and we didn't have a totally clear vision of what we wanted it to look like. We wanted a workshop feel. We also viewed it as our new home, and it's going to take a while for it to feel just right. It was slowly by happenstance, and by using resources, that we started to add to the décor. I definitely attributed a lot of this to taking so much time away from restaurants. I think it really worked in our favor. NK: It allowed us to think outside the box in a way that we probably wouldn't have done straight from Rubicon. We wouldn't have done a lot of these things with the menu. SB: We would have stayed in a more traditional way, even talking about thinking outside of the box. It helped to think outside of the box, outside of the box. It was really kind of cool. We definitely had some idea going into this.
To me it seems that you had a clear vision of how firmly outside of the box you were going to be from day one. And you had a groundbreaking idea for the menu, and it evolved a lot. What were the driving forces in the evolution. What were your cues? SB: It really came down to gut instinct and what felt right. Nicole and I would come home after service, I never rest. That first night I think every single night I probably slept two hours a night during that first month. I would come home after service and it just didn't feel right, so I'd bring my computer home and rewrite the menu, reformat it. And I'd come in the next day and just change everything. It was really kooky. We went through six iterations in the first 30 days until it really came together. How many dishes can we hold for our provisions that we pass around? How many dishes do we put on the menu? We want the diner to have some sense of control. I actually remember someone wrote a review and they talked about the menu being commandables. I really liked that word and so I took it and put in on the menu.
So it took about a month for you to feel like you had the right formula. SB: It took a month to say, OK, I think this version is going to stick. Beyond that, it took much longer to feel like we had our starting point on it looking right, and the right balance of passed food vs. ordered food. NK: We had a lot of repeat guests in the beginning. People in the neighborhood who were so excited we were there, and they were all totally into all the changes. They'd come in and say, "wow, this is totally different than it was last time, and it's really cool, and it's working." People were involved in that process.
Early on, were there moments of fear? SB: Every day. [Nicole, laughing] You know the kitchen being in the front, as great as it is, I would say good night to every guest as they walked by, and I'd be paranoid like, "They didn't like their meal. They didn't smile. They didn't say goodbye back." Every piece of body language and every possible cue, I was reading right and wrong. Nicole would always say, "Stuart, you know, they really enjoyed their meal." I'm not one to go and read reviews on line. Just because I think it clouds your focus. It distracts. If you've got a vision, you've got to go for it.
So are you referring to Yelp, or all critical reviews, or both? SB: All of that.
So you never read Yelp. SB: Oh no. I don't read reviews any more as a whole. Nicole scans through them for something positive or negative. I just think as chefs and restaurants you're really looking for that feedback, you should be in tune with what's happening in your restaurant. We worked for many, many years that way before there was so much immediate feedback on line.
Was there a moment when you realized that things were really taking off? SB: I feel like it was probably about five months into it, when I really felt like a lot of changes had happened. We had started to move in and get comfortable. We added bar seating, and changed the lighting. We had really changed everything. It really started to feel like a restaurant that was growing into itself. That extra ten seats around the bar really changed the game in terms of our interaction with people. It gave us a real sense of confidence about what was happening in the dining room. In short, because we were seeing what was happening in front of us.
That's so great. SB: Our staff had been awesome and totally on board, but had really become kind of magical. The menu, we had added the pancake section. We just started adding different pancakes, and all the sudden it required its own section. It was starting to define us a little more. People were talking about these pancakes we were doing. I thought that was a very cool thing. Nicole, the pastries were coming together. Everything was coming into place, five months into it.
I felt that when I came in later on. It felt, in a good way, that your staff, everyone was drinking the Kool-Aid. Your servers were really living and breathing the food and could speak to it so well. They're like your ambassadors on the floor. SB:We spent a long time talking about service, and what happens when people walk through the door, and when they leave. We spent a tremendous amount of time talking about guests. Our service staff, both front and back, you know the back of the house, is pretty much in the front of the house as well. They're pretty amazing. We have this idea that we want all the people who work at State Bird to not just drink the Kool-Aid, but really live it, love it, feel good about coming to work every day. It definitely takes time, it's like any relationship, you have to get comfortable with everybody. We just want people to be themselves. We don't have a set uniform. We have a set apron that ties us all together. My theory is: if you feel like you need to wear running shoes to work today, then do it. We want people to be comfortable, so they just are able to kick ass and take names. They really put their best foot forward all the time.
I know you said you don't read your reviews. But did you notice a bump or a change in the clientele tied to any specific reviews or press? NK: Well, Bon Appetit came out in August, six hours after it was released, we were getting like 200 phone calls a day. Before that we were getting about 25 a day. SB: We were a busy restaurant, we had been making adjustments to our reservations prior, but when the Bon Appetit awards came out, the phone didn't stop for two weeks, three weeks, I mean it still hasn't. But it was on a level that was mind boggling. You picked up the phone, and put it down, and it was like a constant ring. NK: We saw a lot of people come from the East Coast and a lot of people from the South in a very short period of time. There were people calling and saying things like, "You know, I was in France and I stayed up until 3 a.m. to make a reservation on line." SB: A lot of Europeans. But you know we do that too when we got to France. [Laughs.] That had probably the single most impact on our business. I equate it to a tsunami that hit us. No matter how prepared you think you are, it still was a tsunami. You know, it does its thing. It forced us to think very quickly, make personell changes and additions to the restaurant. We grew very quickly in a very short period of time. It took a little while to get used to being booked out that far in advance. We're just now starting to get used to it. We realize we don't have to change what we do. This is why we won the award. We just have to do it better. Go with it.
Exactly. SB: There have been some beautiful awards that have come our way, and we're honored. We're humbled and shocked most of the time, and excited, and all these kooky emotions. Esquire, GQ, and you know Eater. They're all amazing. I think what it does is, it provides a lot of opportunity. Nicole and I are in our mid to late 30's, and we've spent a lot of time in kitchens and restaurants, and we're just pleased it happened to us in this point in our career.
Right. SB: I don't know if "we earned it," is the right way of saying it. I think that there seems to be a little luck. What was it Einstein who said "luck is the residue of design?" I like to think we designed our path a little by putting so much effort into our careers, and having the chance to work with great people in the past. We are doing something different, which is always how I feel I've done my best work, and Nicole as well.
Obviously your fried quail dish is a home run. What are the other most popular items? SB: Out of the commandables, it would be the quail, our trout dish, and the pork ribs. On the provisions, definitley the garlic bread with burrata.
So those aren't going anywhere on the menu. SB: I don't think so. To me, when you're tired of cooking a dish, it is time to give it rest. But if you really enjoy cooking it, and the flavors are still bold and bright, I think that it should be there.
What's it like working in the are of Fillmore Street where State Bird is, and where The Progress will be? SB: There's definitely been a lot of activity on the street in the past few years. There are a few businesses that have similar visions for the area. It's nice to have that. To us, we're in the restaurant every day, so it's sort of like we're looking out on Fillmore. You know, it can be quite interesting.
It's a lively area. SB: It's a nice area. It's a clean area. It feels safe, there's never a question of that. It's an area that we look forward to being a part of the development. A key factor is it's kind of in the center of the city, in many regards. If you're downtown, you can hop on Geary and be at the restaurant in ten minutes. Same with anywhere on Fillmore Street. Geary cuts East-West, Fillmore curts North-South.
Sort of like a bulls eye. SB: Cabs are easy after dinner. Sometimes we'll hail cabs for our guests. It's nice. It's good that there's activity. NK: I believe after the earthquake, it was the central shopping district for the city, before there was downtown. You can still kind of feel that: like you're in the center of the city.
What are the other spots you referenced that have a similar vision to you? SB: We send a lot of business to Social Study and Fat Angel. We've really developed a nice repure with both of those people. We're all around the same age, and sort of building our businesses. There's others that have been a part of it, and have played a different role than we do. It's evolved into a real San Francisco restaurant, run by people who live here, and the idea is to really create great food, great service, as well as the DIY thing. I think it plays a pretty significant role in restaurants in general these days, specifically in SF. What I love about Fat Angel and Social Study is that they play into that idea as well. We're definitely hoping for some more retail on the block. It would be cool to see some other little independent offerings. I think it just takes time. I have a good feeling it will start happening.
To that end, you also have your new project in the works. What's happening with The Progress? SB: It's definitely happening. Every time we start to put a lot of effort into it, we've been taken away from it, in some way, in terms of business. Whether it's cooking for the Eater Awards or someone else. That's played a role in its timeline. We're so busy at State Bird and having such a blast, and still finding ways to make improvements, so it's moving slowly. More details down the road.
Not ready to talk about details, yet? SB: We're holding back in the same way we did with State Bird. When it feels right, we'll reveal more.
People like mystery anyway, right? SB: Well, we're not trying to be mysterious. Part of the creative process is allowing creativity to take place in a way that you don't have control over it. It just evolves and happens. I can't think about all the details, although we have the idea pretty well thought out, I don't want to miss out on a creative opportunity by putting it out there too soon.
What are you excited about for the New Year? NK: I'm excited to really get into the new project. We have a vision for it that's so amazing, that I'm really excited to see what happens next year with it, and our staff. They're awesome, and just continue to grow and evolve. SB: It's hard to put your finger on what's exciting because it's exciting week-to-week. There's been a lot of reason to be excited. It's fueled by the guests. We're constantly fueuled by people coming in.
So your year anniversary is New Year's Eve. Are you doing anything at the restaurant, or are you taking the day off? SB: We're open. Part of us is like, why are we open? But it seems like the right thing to do. We are just going through what we do. You could eat for $30 at State Bird, or $100 bucks. I like that. I want the idea of that for New Year's as well. It's not exclusive by any means. You choose your own adventure. Along those lines you choose your own price point. We'll have a few special items. Things like oysters, crab, some of the more tangible luxurious items on the menu.
Are you all booked out? SB: This is really important in general about reservations. Two thirds of our business, on a nightly basis is reservations, but we reserve a third of our total seating for walk-ins. We made that decision consciously, because we didn't want to be a place that you couldn't get into. We start with 100 reservations, and we'll do about 140 to 150, filling the rest with walk-in business. So New Year's will be the same. I don't know what to anticipate to be honest. Just like any other dining room, we're booked with reservations but I don't know what that means for walk-ins, because I feel like New Year's is one of those days when people have a plan in mind.
· All State Bird Provisions Coverage [~ ESF ~]